Games have evolved in many aspects over the years, liberating the potential for greater immersion and saturating atmosphere. Not just from the advent of increasingly realistic graphics, acute sound projection and all manner of technical advancements, but from a conceptual standpoint as well. Storylines that organically unfold in-game, emotional engagement, more creative and complex puzzle solving, are a few that immediately come to mind. But are all changes for the better? Some, I say, are a step backwards.
Not so long ago, with the desire of finishing the Half-Life franchise as it stands today, I purchased The Orange Box and started making my way through Episode 1, 2, and then Portal. It was near the end of my time as Gordon Freeman that I was made unavoidably aware that something was wrong. That something, was achievements. This spurred me on to searching my memory in an attempt to recall a featured article I once read at Gamasutra, entitled, Unlocking Achievements: Rewarding Skill With Player Incentives. After my in-game experience and reading the feature, I felt overwhelmingly compelled to write this article.
Shattering the Illusion
By now, many of you are accustomed to the achievement system, it’s nothing new, it made its splash and has become a de facto feature in games. I however — as you’ve probably guessed — am not completely on-board with it. Primarily for one specific reason, immersion.
Little did I know at the time, I was playing through the Half-Life series while in offline mode. What this meant was, that my Steam profile was not logged in, therefore I was never awarded any achievements for the greater part of Half-Life 2: Episode 2. Obliviously one night, I started up Steam and continued with my game, eager to don the HEV suit once again. At the time, I was journeying north towards an old missile base called White Forest. I was given intel that there were several caches of weapons, ammunition and other useful items along the way. Minding the games pacing and general urgency of the situation, I immediately decided I was not going to make a conscience effort to look for these caches. If I happened upon them conveniently along the way towards White Forest, and my radar detected them nearby, then, and only then, would I pursue them. The first cache met the aforementioned criteria, resulting in me abandoning my vehicle and investigating the surrounding area. Successfully solving a clever and yet practical puzzle, I got my hands on the first lambda cache. Suddenly, to my surprise, a pop-up appeared on the bottom right of my screen, “Achievement Unlocked: 1 out of 3 caches found”. Good-bye immersion, hello real world. A slap in the face, reminding me that I was only playing a game. This simple pop-up dialog shattered the illusion Valve created, while being incredibly distracting at the same time. Even with just a mustard seed of curiosity, you can’t help but peek at the bottom right of your screen to see what’s just happened.
1 out of 3 caches found, awesome. Why don’t I collect some coins and bash my head against some bricks while I’m at it. I was absolutely bewildered at this point. My mind couldn’t comprehend that Valve, of all people, who seemingly loved to craft their game experiences, would implement such a “feature” to the detriment of the games immersion. Realism may not be the end-all goal of every title, but for Half-Life, it’s imperative. Valve broke the most cardinal and fundamental rule of an FPS, an act I consider sacrilegious.
Forcing the Players Hand
Furthermore, after that stunner, something interesting occurred. I realized I had two more caches to find. The caches, which I initially assumed were just some helpful extra pick-ups, like I’ve found constantly throughout the game, except perhaps in greater quantity, now felt crucial to my success. After all, they’re important enough to have an achievement based on them aren’t they? The RPG I just acquired from the endeavour further supported this theory. Now I felt compelled to find all the caches, and complete the achievement. My main concern with this is that it pushes the player to make decisions he might not have chosen naturally. I was trying to play the game as spontaneously as possible, and my voluntarily decision — not to specifically search out the caches — shifted to a mandatory treasure hunt, not to mention I had the burden of having a mental checklist. Concerning this, there was only one excerpt that struck a chord with me in the Gamasutra article, the thoughts of Uncharted’s Lead Designer, Richard Lemarchand.
“Lemarchand worries that the quest for trophies may drive some players into play styles that are not a natural fit for them — they could end up completing tasks that negatively affect their experience with the game.”
The Gamastura article also detailed several reasons why these virtual pat-on-the-backs are a resounding success. Most of which I’ve countered from an experienced gamers perspective. Although, the viewpoints I don’t agree with aren’t unique to Gamasutra, or rather the author, Mary Jane Irwin. I’d like to think I’ve approached this from a very simple and logical point of view.
Is the Game the Goal, Or the Game For the Goals
It’s been said that achievements are a new metric to prove game mastery. That they are the new high score. That they enhance the gameplay experience and reward dedicated players for their effort and skill. All of which are astoundingly feeble statements, based on unfounded generalized assumptions that are incredibly belittling to me as a gamer.
What if I don’t want to prove myself, want if I just want to enjoy myself. In real life, performance is something I have to wrestle with everyday and don’t necessarily seek that in games. Sure I love doing well in a game and owning it up, but I don’t like being reminded that I could have been “better” in successfully completing a story rich game. Which to me, is somewhat of an oxymoron. Most of my favourite gaming moments came from enjoying the experience, whether I did poorly or not. What if all I wanted to do was rid the earth of a hostile take-over from an alien multidimensional empire, who had an unwavering desire to enslave the human race. To save the girl of my dreams from the clutches of an evil sorceress, so that I can kiss her and finally, in sweet embrace, admit that I love her.
How is it now, because I couldn’t give a shit about Gamerscore, or any equivalent system which has absolutely zero relevance to the game I’m playing, be any less dedicated? I bought the game and successfully attained victory as outlined by the titles storyline. Gamerscore has absolutely no significance whatsoever to any title. It’s a system that remains completely outside of a game, exists solely for itself, and has no purpose in a game. The fact that developers have adopted this system across the board, has just given me greater animosity towards the subject. Microsoft, who are definitely not known for their brilliant game design, has set the precedence to which all game development studios are following. It makes no sense. In the context of a game, the addition of the achievement system, with the goal of pumping up a players Gamerscore provides no benefits to the title. It’s this point, that I find continually baffling and feel the need to continuously stress. Like-minded thinker, Andy Lundell, comments on Gamasutra,
“What bugs me the most about Achievements is that they’re not good for anything. They’re just for their own sake.”
An added fact to why I say achievements are a step backwards, is because it’s something that we’ve always had, but have conceptually evolved into something more cohesive. Obviously barring games with arcade-like metrics, or even multiplayer games, there was a reason we left high score behind. Not to say that a multiplayer game can’t suffer from a ham handed implementation, but I’m talking about single player experiences exclusively. In modern conventions, we reward intuitive players by their observation, cognizance and general perspicacity, with advantages and benefits that fit the game worlds context. Be it sturdier armour, more powerful weapons, valuable information etc… Rewards that inform the player, through gameplay, the developers recognition and acknowledgement that he has done well. Games today are now taking this well advanced mechanic and are mixing it with outdated thinking. Regressing game design. All developers are doing now, is simply slapping a label to everything and displaying that to the player. As if the reward wasn’t a clear enough indication that the player had achieved something. Joel McDonald, whom I immediately loved after reading his comment on Gamasutra, writes,
“First and foremost, the core gameplay should provide intrinsic rewards to the player such as a sense of accomplishment, feelings of mastery, and the ability to make meaningful choices. As soon as players start to play the game purely for the artificial rewards of earning achievements, we have failed as designers.”
Achievements can also provoke a checklist mentality in gamers. Instead of focusing a players attention to the main story arc, we’re distracting them with a list of achievements. A segment of players will browse through these achievement lists and set goals for themselves, sometimes even before they’ve begun the game. Players are informed via descriptions exactly what is needed to be done in order to complete a task. Which is also why I think using achievements to try and attain valuable player statistics quite laughable. You can easily create a system aside from achievements and trophies that tracks all this data in the background. Just because it is visually presented to the player doesn’t make it any more real. In fact, it compromises your study. Valve, with Steam, has been recording player data and patterns for years. Horrifyingly, the descriptions accompanying these achievements can reveal events to come, and are basically spoilers. Spoilers. How come I have never read anyone complain about this!? Oh, I’m gonna race Dog at some point? I’m going to be shooting something into space? Thanks for that. Why don’t I just browse some walkthroughs online while I’m at it.
Tony Hawk Pro Skater had achievements way before Microsoft’s foray into the console market, but it’s game model revolved around it. It was the game and worked amazingly, because it was designed. I’m not suggesting that game developers should now mould their content around achievements, which I’m sure in some small ways has been the case at times, as that would cause the game design to be compromised.
Do It Again Danny
On the premise of achievements adding replayability, I don’t see the point of ruining my memory of a game, by playing through what would now be a predictable storyline, divorced from excitement of exploring the unknown. I didn’t buy the game with the purposes of owning very well disguised checklist, I bought it for the crafted experience I’d get from it. However, if the game had replayability masterfully designed into it, like the Hitman series, where there is multiple ways to accomplish a goal. Thus promoting the player to approach a problem in several different ways.
There’s also this notion that achievements can be used as a tool to help players realize that any particular feature of a game is fun. Perhaps you shouldn’t need to desperately convince a player that a particular feature is fun? If it’s fun, trust me he’ll know about it. If this isn’t the case, it’s just indicative of a design failure or problem that needs to be solved. You shouldn’t resort to applying the plaster that is achievements. When I first heard of, and then played Final Fantasy VIII, I thought it was going to be the biggest load of crap. Shortly after a couple hours of gametime, I watched as my ass got appropriated by Squaresoft (at the time) and shipped to Japan. It won me over despite the fact that the title had a considerably large barrier to entry. Especially since I had not played a Final Fantasy or JRPG before it.
It’s also been highlighted several times that the achievement system has benefited game sales. Simply put, games with achievements implemented sell better. And from a purely business perspective, it seems logical to adopt this system. But this is where I’d like to point out, that the game industry has continued to grow from strength to strength without the aid of the casual gamer masses. What about the love of the craft? I’m gonna say it, revenue isn’t everything. Sure that sounds like a statement born out of pure monumental ignorance, but if you’re thinking that, you’re probably a suit. Golf on Friday? But don’t hear what I’m not saying either. I realize the game industry is a business, and of course, we want to make good money too. Everybody needs food and Ferrari’s.
Games don’t need achievements in order to be a success, we know that. Valuable development time is now expended on satisfying the basic needs and desires of the masses, with not enough consideration to the craft of game design. Most of these “gamers” deplorable compulsions, don’t go past clicking random objects on the screen and watching them explode. Lets not forget the wicked score, incrementing every time you’re successful in doing so. It’s these gamers that aren’t going to care about your artful touches, your attention to detail, or your story. Instead, in efforts to garner a larger and larger audience, we are breeding monsters. To be blunt, what about caring for the guys that loved your games and bought your shit in the first place. Achievements are only a “success” if your measure for success is based on revenue alone. I guess, that would make the drug industry a success too.
Developers should rather weigh its benefits against how suitable it is for each title. More importantly, consider the ramifications it might have. Some of my objections to the achievement system could be numbed however, through improved implementation. One solution would be having the ability to disable the in-game notifications / pop-ups. Players would still get their just rewards without intrusive dialogs appearing in-game. Such a simple answer, that takes the players experience into consideration. Valve have included this functionality for your Friends notifications, I can’t see why they can’t do likewise for achievements.
Smarter designers, give the player a time of “soaking”, allowing them to revel in a moment. Then afterwards, during a break or paused moment in the game, the achievement is unlocked and the player is informed of his reward. This prevents the achievement from being intrusive during gameplay, which is better, but still damages the illusion. I’m merely proposing that, in its application, developers should carefully plan its implementation. That is, if it must be implemented. In Half-Life 2: Episode 2′s case, the achievements felt like they were included post the games production, just for the sake of having them.
I found that after looking deeply into the subject, bouncing my thoughts amongst fellow gamer friends, and playing devil’s advocate with myself, served only to confirm my initial knee-jerk reaction to achievements. That ultimately, we don’t need them, especially where single player games that want to be taken seriously are concerned.